We interrupt this series of “My Ideal Bookshelf” columns because, um, we want to.
I’ve been swamped with work lately and haven’t had a chance to finish up the “Ideal Bookshelf” series, but as I’ve been slogging through the various items in my inbox, I’ve come to realize that I need to get something off my chest.
I am angry and sad, and it’s all related to David Foster Wallace.
Those who know me should be unsurprised. I have long been a Wallace devotee. My book The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light was partly inspired by his collection entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. His graduation speech “This Is Water” is on my list of Things to Make Everyone I Know Read before They Die.
Lately, I’ve been reading his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Its subtitle is “Essays and Arguments,” which is exactly what you’ll find inside the covers. And, as always, whether he is writing about tennis stars or David Lynch or the perils of taking luxury cruises with dickish crews and asshole rich people, his work is funny, insightful, and emotionally bare. In fact, his article on Lynch represents exactly what I want to do in my own popular culture criticism—marry high-level academic thinking with language and tone that anyone of reasonable intelligence or curious intellect can access. 
When I read Wallace’s work, it is as if he’s reaching across time and distance and tapping me on the shoulder. His erudite, self-deprecating, often-despair-driven nonfiction work often mirrors exactly how I feel about something, and I simultaneously admire him and hate him for saying it so well. Hell, he’s even fascinated with footnotes and asides. Read my doctoral dissertation and, on the page, it won’t look much different from the typical DFW essay.
I do my best, even in my bleakest moments, not to disparage or minimalize whatever talents God gave me; doing so, I believe, disrespects them, and Him, and myself. I never want to seem ungrateful for things I should never, ever take for granted. Yet I think it’s only human to feel inadequate or fraudulent when you read the work of writers whose genius has already been established and your own talents are still mostly obscure.
And but so (see what I did there, DFW? I stole your weird transitional phrase!), when reading Wallace, I often feel like a second-string mid-major college quarterback must feel when they watch Peyton Manning or Drew Brees—the heady, almost orgasmic thrill that comes with experiencing a world-class practitioner at work in your field, doing the very thing that you aspire to do and at the level you aspire to achieve, plus the concurrent and soul-wrenching suspicion that you will never actually reach those heights. That you might not be as good as you hope you are, and that, even if you’re (thanks be to God) just as good as those guys who already have the job, you might not catch the same breaks, get the same opportunities, find the same kind of support system in the field that will believe in you and advocate for you and by God just help you do what you damn well fucking know you’re meant to do, for your sake and the sake of those who might find your work entertaining or a pleasant distraction from daily miseries or thought-provoking or inspirational or, we might as well say it because it’s what we all hope for in some part of ourselves, genius-level art.
DFW intrigues me, tickles me, entertains me. And yet I’m angry.
For those who don’t know—on September 12, 2008, after a life-long battle with depression and a concurrent quaffing of pills and electroconvulsive therapy and other typical stavings-off of the crushing despair of daily life and its equally unbearable beauty, David Foster Wallace waited until his wife left their home, wrote a farewell note, and hung himself on his own patio.
On that day, a great light went out of the literary firmament. Those who knew him, and those of us who felt like we did, still find the world a dimmer, less interesting place than it was when he was in it.
So I’m mad. I’m angry that a man who wrote so much about choosing to see the world in an empathetic way could not, in the end, keep choosing. I don’t know whom to blame for this. Many people see his suicide as a failure to live up to his own principles, but for God’s sake, as he himself points out in “This Is Water,” we have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head or what their life’s circumstances are like. I don’t know if his death speaks to a failure in his particular support system or to the great malaise in our country’s attitudes about/willingness to pay for preventative care of mental illness. I do know that five years later, I’m still grappling with my own complicated responses, and that sometimes those responses take the form of anger at DFW himself.
“What the hell, man?” I want to ask him.
The thing is, I know despair. I have lived in the deep black pit of it for years at a time. When I was younger, I suffered from the generalized and overly Romantic soul-sickness that is so common to young creative types. I spent most of my time absolutely certain that most people did not understand me and had no real desire to. (Even today, I’m not sure I was very far off with this belief.) In the years since, I have labored under the fears that I am a terrible father, an inadequate husband, an okay teacher at best, and a writer who may or may not ever achieve widespread publication or a broad audience. On some days, the blank page that I want to fill up or the half-full classroom full of people who actually expect me to know what I’m doing is so daunting that I can barely breathe.
I know what it means to hurt.
But what the hell, man? You took yourself away from us. You truncated a brilliant career. You left. You left.
I mean, listen to this shit for a minute:
“What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious that they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.”—From “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”
Can you dig what he just said about love? “The very surrender of choice and self that informs love in the first place.” What a great turn of phrase. And the son of a bitch wrote that when he was around 33, ten full years younger than I am now. (!!!!) What would he have been capable of at fifty? Sixty? Eighty?
This is the crux of my dilemma. I am reading the work of a writer whose mind and work I deeply respect. But every time I laugh or nod knowingly, I also want to scream. Because he’s gone.
What the hell am I supposed to do about that?
And now, on a different note…
I’ll tell you one thing I won’t do—go back to The Hush Puppy again.
For those who don’t live in Las Vegas, The Hush Puppy is a dinner-only restaurant on West Charleston Boulevard. It’s just a few minutes down the road from the College of Southern Nevada’s main campus. When I heard about the place, I was terribly interested. The owners were originally from Texarkana, Arkansas, not all that far from where I grew up. The restaurant serves a lot of good old southern dishes—barbecued ribs, sweet tea, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters (are you detecting a pattern?), and more, along with some south Louisiana favorites like gumbo and alligator. I had to go.
It started out well enough. We arrived just before the 5 pm opening and were allowed to come on in. They seated our party of three within a couple of minutes and took our drink orders in a timely manner. I ordered the sweet tea, and when they say “sweet,” they are not kidding. The Hush Puppy’s sweet tea is the kind where, after your first big swallow, you feel like going outside and dashing around the building eight or ten times. Seriously, diabetics should not drink this stuff. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, too, but mostly I dug it. In Las Vegas, pre-sweetened iced tea is about as common as slow nights on the Strip and blizzards.
Soon our waitress, expressionless but dutiful, brought out a basket of hushpuppies. They were plentiful and piping hot and tasted like the batter on corn dogs. Not the exact kind of puppies you might get at a southern fish fry, but good nonetheless. I put away six or seven of the suckers, with butter from three generous tubs spread on them. So far, we were all happy.
Kalene and Maya both ordered the 10 oz. top sirloin with baked potato and a corn cobette. Both meals came with a trip to the salad bar and, allegedly, garlic bread, though said bread never appeared, and no one ever mentioned it. Kalene ordered her steak medium well. Maya ordered it medium.
I ordered something called a Big Bayou Platter (“Sure to satisfy a healthy appetite”), which consisted of Louisiana Shrimp, alligator tail, “New Orleans” fried oysters, and farm-raised fried catfish. It also came with a salad bar trip. I ordered crawfish rice as my side. Sounds good, right?
The salad bar was small and crowded, but I had no real problems with it. I wasn’t expecting anything fancy. I got my iceberg, my carrots, what on further review appeared to be Bac-Os (which taste like vaguely bacon-flavored uncooked popcorn kernels), some shredded cheese, and a bit of ranch dressing. I saw some watery black olives, but other than the carrots, no other hearty veggies in evidence. No broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red onion, bell pepper, and so forth. Perhaps I missed them in the crowd. In any case, I had a serviceable but unspectacular salad with enough room on the plate left over for a tablespoon or so of oily pasta salad. The ladies came back with small salads made of the same sorts of super-basic ingredients.
At this point, we were a bit underwhelmed but still happy enough.
Then the entrees arrived.
Let’s talk about mine first. The Big Bayou Platter—“sure to satisfy any appetite,” you’ll recall—looked like somebody’s first trip to an enormous buffet, the kind of plate where you can tell the bearer is pacing him- or herself for several more courses as the night wears on. Given that I had already eaten a salad (of sorts) and a fistful of hushpuppies, it did in fact satisfy my appetite. But if I had come in really hungry, or if I had been, say, a professional wrestler or a UNLV basketball player fresh from the after-practice shower, I might have considered a false advertising suit.
That farm-raised fried catfish fillet was far and away the best item I ate, and if I ever do consider going back, it will be because my desire for southern-tasting fried fish overwhelms my better judgment. The Big Bayou Platter comes with exactly one filet, a small enough portion to flabbergast any southern boy who has ever been to a backyard fish-fry. A truly big platter would have piled up three or four of those suckers at least. I know southern boys who could take one filet and stuff it into their cheeks like a chipmunk while they went somewhere else for a real meal.
But at least it was good. The six or eight Louisiana Shrimp, on the other hand, smacked less of Louisiana and more of the kind of low-sodium diet that a dangerously obese person with sky-high blood pressure might eat. They appeared to have been grilled or baked or something; they were on a skewer and cooked through. The problem is that they had about as much flavor as a Styrofoam to-go box. They weren’t bad per se; they were just bland. I can tell you with authority that New Orleans patrons might well riot if they knew their state foods were being so maligned.
The New Orleans fried oysters were fine enough for me. I am not a fried oyster connoisseur; in fact, I seldom eat them. To me, they taste like battered, burnt dirt. If I’m going to eat oysters, I normally want them on the half-shell, and I don’t even do that very often, because a raw oyster’s consistency is not unlike what I imagine a quarter-cup of boogery snot would feel like in your mouth. They can taste pretty good, especially with the right condiments, but still. Anyway, I can’t disparate the Hush Puppy’s fried oysters, except for the fact that this “big” platter held exactly three. If this platter is truly supposed to satisfy any appetite, one can only imagine that the Hush Puppy’s regular clientele must consist of super-models and recent stomach-band surgery patients.
The three medallions of alligator tail—somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in diameter and about as thick as one of those cotton pads women often use to remove their makeup—were fried to near-jerky consistency. It, too, was more bland than bad, but if I had wanted bland, I would have gone to Smith’s and bought a package of plain rice cakes.
I ate what I would estimate as a cup of crawfish rice, the most savory part of the meal and the closest to Louisiana cooking, though still not what I would call authentic. It sat on my plate in an almost perfectly circular ball, as if it had been dipped from a vat with an oversized ice cream scoop. My portion contained exactly two small crawfish.
So my meal was not exactly memorable, at least not for the right reasons. Still, at this point I was looking forward to coming back. I planned to order more tea and the all-you-can-eat fish to maximize my enjoyment of what the restaurant really does well.
What happened next lessened the odds of my ever returning by at least 80%.
Remember how Kalene ordered her steak cooked medium well? That is generally defined as a cut with some pink in the center, firm, warm throughout.
Kalene’s steak was gray-brown throughout, not the least glimmer of pink anywhere, and, in places, rather dry. The flavor was good, but it was not cooked to order.
Maya’s was worse. Again, the flavor was fine. But her “medium” steak—“pink and firm,” warm throughout (I understand the USDA recommends 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium cooking)—was indeed medium, at least in the outer portions. The inner part of the steak, a good 2/3 of the cut—was red and bloody and spongy. It was medium rare at least, bordering on rare in places. Maya the carnivore would not eat it.
Our expressionless waitress came over at the end of the meal. Kalene wanted to let her know that our steaks were not cooked to order, not because we wanted any money back or anything comped (we had eaten most of the food, except for Maya’s still-mooing steak and part of Kalene’s) but because we thought they might want to inform the cooks that they needed to step up their games. Customer satisfaction and all that, right?
Our waitress looked at Maya’s steak, which sat bleeding on her plate as if someone at the next table had swallowed a grenade and spattered our table with chunks of their pancreas.
“That’s medium,” she said, still expressionless.
“No, it’s not,” Kalene said, looking incredulous.
“That’s supposed to be medium well,” I said, indicating the remains of Kalene’s grayish top sirloin. “That thing is [here pointing to Maya’s plate] is not one step down from medium.”
She looked at us for a moment, the air weighty with tension.
“You want to-go box?” she asked.
No, we had little desire to drive a chunk of rare meat all the way across town and actually cook it ourselves. We declined her robotic offer of a to-go box (we really would have needed a pet kennel anyhow, as I remain unconvinced that the steak was actually dead) and carried the check by hand to the front register, since she laid it on our table and walked away and did not return for several minutes.
At this point, I split off from our little group. When you’ve just imbibed enough sweet tea to float a respectably sized canoe and have to drive across town, you go to the bathroom before you leave whether you feel like you need to or not. On the way out, Kalene said that the manager took five bucks off our bill, but that she had reported the lousy cooking and contentious waitress, only to discover that she had to explain what “contentious” meant.
“Then he told me that if we wanted a better steak, we should get the New York Strip next time,” she said, shaking her head.
I was astounded. This guy a) pretty much just admitted that his sirloins suck and that if you want a decent steak, you have to upgrade to a more expensive cut, and b) completely glossed over the fact that we were dissatisfied with the cooking, not the cut of the meat or the flavor.
This is a manager?
And that, friends, is why we won’t be going back. The Hush Puppy had come recommended by one of our colleagues, another transplanted southerner. He has had better experiences there. And we can easily forgive it when a kitchen has an off night. That can happen at any place. It’s happened at some of our favorites.
But when your cooking was, at best, acceptable and often inedible; when your wait staff argues with dissatisfied customers and does so in ways that show they don’t understand how things are supposed to be cooked; when your manager does nothing about the lousy service and makes only the most perfunctory gesture to make up for the food; and when they demonstrate that they don’t care what kind of time you have as long as they can talk you into spending more money, I’m done.
Sorry, Hush Puppy on West Charleston. You and I are over. It’s not me. It’s you.
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 I actually stopped reading BIwHM only two stories in because I had already started on the first tales in Subtle Dance and felt the anxiety of influence. I didn’t want my book to transmogrify from an original exploration of voice and theme into a DFW clone.
 This means you. If you don’t want to read it, you can listen to it on Youtube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
 These works being attempts to think about things in a deep and insightful way without succumbing too much to the thick jargon of pointy-headed academic blather more interested in peacocking its author’s ability to name-check Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Derrida and Hegel ad infinitum ad nauseum.
 Hello, agents! Hi, editors! Greetings, publishers! How ya doin’? Don’t you want to work with a writer who is not untalented, who works harder than anybody has any right to expect, who takes constructive criticism well without sacrificing his own artistic vision? Don’t you? Huh? Huh?
 A more apt and tragic example of the dire results of our country’s failures to account for the mental illnesses from which so many of us suffer would be hard to find outside of a mass shooting.
 I cannot, and would not want to, imagine how DFW’s family felt in the moment of his body’s discovery, or how they feel now.